I seem to have stirred up something of a GM Twitter hornet’s nest with my letter to The Guardian Sustainable Meat and Dairy Farming Can Work in response to George Monbiot’s (yes, THAT GM) article ‘Goodbye - and Good Riddance - to Livestock Farming’
That this is the vegan stance is a given. It may even be an arguable, ethical, human dietary pinnacle. I don’t know, and I’m not even going to debate it.
We are where we are and that is not going to change overnight or even in the next 100 years, based on current trends.
What we are trying to demonstrate, in our own tiny way, is (and this question applies to all types of farming, but as we are an upland farm unsuited to arable production, livestock products are our only food option): – ‘Can we produce adequate amounts of affordable food without trashing the environment while providing our animals with a good life and our staff with a balanced and rewarding occupation, without going bust?’
Conventional wisdom, driven by modern economic theory, says it can’t be done. High standards of environmental, social and ethical welfare are incompatible with farm profitability, at current prices. Maybe they’re right and that has always been my defence in the past, when questioned by people ‘who don’t know any better’.
However in recent years, as we’ve experimented with agroecology and agroforestry, I’ve begun to question that mantra. This is not a popular line of thought in an ultra-conservative industry because if we are right, the implications are quite mind-blowing.
I mean, how can a farm that has set aside around a tenth of its land area to mixed broadleaved woodlands and ponds, completely cut out the use of soluble fertilisers, chemical weed sprays, fungicides and vaccines, reduced the use of antibiotic, stomach worm drenches and other pesticides by over 90%, increased the farm biodiversity by 5-fold and allows the calves to suckle their own mothers for months on end, even begin to function!? Let alone compete with industrial farms with all their public subsidy and un-costed, social, environmental and animal welfare baggage, advantages. It’s a good question. But it does. And that gave me cause for thought.
Who are the beneficiaries of our food system? Farmers with their 80-hour grafting weeks, pittance returns and up-to-the-neck debt? The environment with biodiversity collapse, record diffuse pollution, soil erosion, resource depletion and climate change? Dairy cows with record levels of transmissible and non-transmissible diseases, record short productive lives and increasingly kept indoors all year? Or you, the ultimate consumer of our ‘cheap’ products bought at vast taxpayers’ expense through subsidies and clean-up costs, not to mention the issues of antibiotic resistance and pesticide residues in our over-sterile, over-processed food?
Hmmm. Maybe the answer lies in all that stuff we no longer buy and use that we were brainwashed into believing is essential for successful, modern farming? Because it isn’t.
This is the question you should be asking George. Not whether it’s better to be vegan, vegetarian, omnivore or whatever. Nor even the relative plant and animal productive capability per hectare.
But why are industry leaders and policy makers (despite the rhetoric) needlessly pursuing both plant and animal food production systems that are, quite frankly, costing us the earth?